Among older folks who once knew nothing else, home remedies can die hard or not at all.
"I'm 72 years old," says George Sakievich. "Sixty years ago, I walked into the store. I was itching all over. I lived off of Belair Road and was playing in the woods."
The storekeeper noted Sakievich's rising poison ivy patches, led him to a stream and showed him how to apply the milky insides of jewelweed, also known as wild touch-me-not. Sakievich remains a believer in this well-known folk remedy.
"You take this jewelweed and it's full of liquid," he says. "Anyone that is allergic to poison ivy . . . that has already broken out; it's a lot better than calamine lotion -- break it open and rub it on your hand."
Kathleen Dannenfelser, 77, remembers that her mother went to the kitchen when the children took sick. "I often had quinsy. Every winter I would get it," Dannenfelser says of a then common malady that caused an abscess in her throat. "There were nine of us. My father was always sick. We didn't have too much money. My mother would take onions and deep fry them until they were clear. She put them in a cloth and tied them around my neck. That helped. It was like a poultice."
"In the old days," Katherine DiMaio says, "we never knew what a doctor was. My mother took care of everything. When I had a bad sore throat, she killed a chicken, and without washing the insides, she took the fat out. She didn't wash it or anything. She rubbed fat on your neck and wrapped it up with a cloth."
When Frances Sponar, 73, had a sore throat, "My mother used to boil honey and slice onion in it. She gave it to us by spoonfuls. It used to cut the tickle in your throat. I don't know why, but that's what she used to do.
"I think those old remedies are better than those new ones," Sponar says. "When I had a darn good cold, I went to the doctor. He gave me medicine that didn't do me a darn bit of good. Those old time remedies were better. My mother never ran to the doctors until there was something she couldn't cure."
Eighty percent of the world's population still depends on natural remedies to treat mind and body. Most of those remedies are composed of the 2,500 plants and herbs that have been used over the centuries for medicinal purposes. In the United States, more than $8 billion is spent yearly on prescription drugs derived from many of those very plants.
But a growing reliance on Eastern and other alternative healing arts among those dissatisfied with standard health care has inspired a renewed respect for the decoctions, infusions, compresses, extracts, powders, tinctures and poultices that nudged our ancestors back to health.
Daily, Kelvin Levitt, a registered pharmacist who owns the Health Department Natural Foods store in Randallstown, sees customers scanning rows of dried herbs such as boneset, coltsfoot, devil's claw, rose hips, pennyroyal, fenugreek, burdock, mullein and motherwort with worn copies of the herbal classic, "Back to Eden," (Back to Eden Books, $6.95) and "The Herb Book" (Bantam Books, $5.95) in hand.
"More people are going back to their roots, their herbal roots, especially," says Levitt. "Especially blacks, who have never left those roots in reality. I see grandmothers buying stuff they used to use on their children, and now their daughters are also getting it for the grandchildren."
With a reach that sweeps over-the-counter products as well as home-grown herbs into one vast category, Ralph Blomster, a professor in the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, identifies home remedies as "something that somebody takes that is non-prescription, that helps them feel better and runs the gamut from chicken soup to making your own tea for a laxative or mixing red pepper along with alcohol and winter green bark to use as a linement."
An avid student of plant chemistry who travels to South America to collect new species, and a native New Englander whose family relied on home remedies, Blomster takes a cautious, but positive view of traditional botanical cures.
"There is nothing wrong with using herbs for general types of problems to make you feel better," Blomster says. "You're probably better off and you're cutting down on health care cost. But you've got to draw the line as to when you stop treating yourself. You don't want to fool yourself into thinking you're getting better."
The potency of plants must also be treated gingerly, Blomster says. "If you look at any of these herbal books, 90 percent of the time when they mention a plant, you can be sure it's used in medicine, and 50 percent of the time they do bring about an effect. The problem is they may be toxic."
For example, cherry bark, a traditional remedy for coughs, contains cyanide. Digitalis, or foxglove, a traditional cure for heart irregularities, can poison in high doses. And ginseng, an ancient tonic and sexual stimulant, can cause nervousness and bloated face if consumed in large quantities.